The first ten days or more of the Imran government are a lesson in how not to conduct foreign policy – on the hoof, in haste, for publicity, and then eventually in panic and desperation.
The Mike Pompeo telephone call to Prime Minister Imran signifies in graphic detail what happens when important signposts in statecraft are first left to less-than-ordinary professional diligence and then needless scare scenarios are built to push for a diplomatic engagement from a compromised position.
We are told that the call from the US secretary of state was something of a tough choice for the Imran government. We are told that the decision to take the call in breach of general protocol for a first interaction, requiring heads of governments to exchange greetings, was made considering the negative side of turning down the call offer. If PM Imran was indeed guided towards agreeing to speak to the US secretary of state under the duress of the situation, then it was bad advice. Not taking the call would not have jeopardised the bilateral equation – especially if it were done politely citing issues of timing, availability of the prime minister and a host of other official reasons mandarins always have handy to deflect and dodge awkward moments.
However, if he had to do it, then PM Imran should have been only involved in taking the courtesy congratulatory call, leaving the rest of the business of exchange on substantive issues to his foreign minister through a later telephonic interaction. This would have saved the country the embarrassment of the US secretary of state literally reading a riot act to the country’s newly-elected prime minister who has been a big promoter of the idea that Washington treats Pakistan like a doormat.
That the foreign policy bureaucracy failed to put up these filters and the prime minister’s office seemed to be on holiday on the day is a sign of chaos that first and foremost ought to be handled by the prime minister himself and then by his close associates and advisors. What happened in the wake of that call was even more distressful. Both sides released read-outs that had no meeting point on substantive issues: the PM’s narrative was all milk and honey while the US State Department’s press release was dipped in gall towards the end. It accused Pakistan of housing terrorists of various hues and wagged the usual Washington finger demanding ‘decisive action’.
This public bickering was worsened by the Pakistan Foreign Office and the US State Department sticking to their guns – the former taking exception to the incorrect read-out while the latter insisting that what they released was an accurate description of what Pompeo had told Prime Minister Imran.
Later Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi tried to erase the memory of this sad drama by downplaying it and showing the intent to ‘move on’ by looking forward to meeting with the US secretary of state when (and if) he makes a brief stopover in Islamabad en route to Delhi. That day PM Imran ended up meeting the outgoing US ambassador on a ‘farewell call’ – which essentially meant that Islamabad was willing to now open doors of the PM even to a regular functionary of the US State Department. (He also met the army chief on his ‘farewell call.’) But glibness or supine gestures aren’t really an antidote to this serious injection of more poison in Pak-US bilateral ties caused essentially by moronic handling of what was supposed to be a brief telephone call.
The larger issue that this episode has raised relates to ideas of statecraft and diplomacy that are cut from the ridiculous paradigm (applied rather successfully in polemical domestic politics) that we can speak from both edges of our mouth on a subject and it will have no consequences. These ideas are based on the wrong assumption that, just as it is done before the domestic audience, clumsiness can be compensated with bravado and big but hollow talk before the world as well. The Pakistani nation has been told repeatedly that the ouster of a particular type of leader (Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari) from power – or their marginalisation – will usher in an era of national prestige and honour in which all world leaders will be standing in line saluting the new government.
This kind of useless rhetoric constantly drummed into the ears of an uninitiated domestic audience has created a culture in this government where everything is measured by the standards of its immediate news impact or the false images of success it conjures. However, the international audience has a totally different culture. It is ruthless and unforgiving and weighs countries on the merit of their economic and strategic worth and bargaining position rather than who is leading them and how braggadocious a government is in its statements.
This aspect of international life is missing from the Imran government’s orientation towards India, Pakistan’s arch enemy. Here again PM Imran’s desire to conduct himself as an all-powerful president in a parliamentary form of government is defeating the requirements of smart handling of Delhi. His tweets (why have a Foreign Office and a spokesman or, for that matter, a foreign minister?) in support of a retired-cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sindhu, his one-sided desire for peace, his unrequited offer of help in Kerala floods are all shots in the black hole of Indian disinterest to engage with Islamabad on terms other than their very own – with cross-border terrorism at the top of the agenda.
Also, the visible absence of any mention of the heart-breaking and endless oppression of the Kashmiris and complete avoidance of known instances of Indian terrorism inside Pakistan costing us precious lives are omissions that have policy consequences. Besides, these are non-initiatives because these are not well-thought-out and have neither any background nor any future. These are just tweets designed to create momentary positive stir and capture headlines for a few hours.
Contrasting with this digital over-activity is lethargy towards fronts and platforms where substantive diplomacy can be carried out and long-term interests of the nation can be represented. The most striking example of this lackadaisical attitude is the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly. As we write this piece, the foreign minister has already announced (publicly, mind you) that he will be attending this gathering of over one hundred world leaders. There is no official statement yet whether the decision is final or not and why PM Imran is not going, if he isn’t going.
This is bad. The UNGA is the only international gathering that allows countries and their leaders to speak to the entire world that is in audience. It is the largest forum where leaders can network and line up meetings in two days with more heads of governments and states than they can’t even possibly do individually in months. PM Imran can save national money – since we can’t formulate a sentence these days without mentioning the word ‘austerity’ – by meeting his counterparts from nations that he would probably not be able to meet for years but which are very important like Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa.
At any rate, Iran, Afghanistan, the UK, Canada, the US and scores of other countries’ heads will also be visiting. It is a unique opportunity for PM Imran to speak to them and, what’s more, project and expand the reach of Pakistan’s policy in a complex world. Also Kashmiris look towards Pakistan to plead their case before the world since they have no voice of their own internationally. These and a dozen other arguments weigh in favour of PM Imran going to the UNGA session. Yet It’s an issue frozen in ambiguity. Almost all countries have decided at which level they will be represented at the forum but not Pakistan. This ambiguity speaks of an unfortunate and irrational order of priorities where tacky headline-grabbing moves are placed far above world-attention generating initiatives.
Pakistan is in the thick of serious challenges that impact its national security and its future stability. Foreign policy is key to ensuring both. Messing around with this key is irresponsible and costly. PM Imran is new to the business of diplomacy. Much depends on his team on how he conducts this business in the days ahead. So far, what has happened isn’t anything to write home about.